March 9, 2017 10:00 am JST

Artist Miya Ando builds silent bridges

Contemplative works reflect creator's diverse background, Buddhist heritage

FRAN KUZUI, Contributing writer

Miya Ando's allusive art is hard to pigeon-hole. (Photo by Fran Kuzui)

TOKYO Miya Ando's place on the contemporary art scene is made all the more remarkable by what she is not. Her palate shimmers with Japanese color and sensibility, but she is not an artist who is easily labeled. Of partial Japanese ancestry, she is also Russian-American and Jewish, and embraces the sum total of her heritage.

One might want to brand her a minimalist or post-minimalist after seeing her recent anodized aluminum pieces, but the essence of her work includes the changing of basic materials, not typical of the minimalists. Although Ando's work appears simple, it is far from simple to describe. She is the perfect example of a bridge between East and West, presenting abundance with seductively silent works, enticing in their Buddhist-inspired empathy.

Like her work, Ando moves physically and philosophically between many worlds with great fluidity. She works out of a studio in Long Island City, New York, and lives with her artist husband in Chelsea, Manhattan. But her spiritual center seems to reside in a redwood forest in Santa Cruz, California, where she spent a great deal of her childhood secluded and "off the grid" with her family. She still visits frequently.

As a child, her summers were devoted to time with her Japanese mother's family living on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Okayama Prefecture, Japan, to which she returns regularly. Being the 16th generation of a family that includes samurai swordsmiths and Buddhist priests from Bizen, a famed ceramics town in Okayama, Ando's time in Japan gives her a deep appreciation of craft and concentration. Her New Yorker side, meanwhile, gives her a dynamic voice.

We met over lunch in Daikanyama, one of Tokyo's trendiest areas. Ando arrived fresh from a meeting with a prominent TV broadcaster, who promised, as she departed, to get back to Ando with filming dates for an upcoming documentary. Waiting for us at the restaurant was architect Keita Tamura of the firm Azusa Sekkei. Tamura is lobbying to produce Ando's first public work in Japan. Her best-known public piece is the 9/11 Memorial at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The piece is fashioned out of a girder from the original World Trade Center in New York, destroyed in the 9/11 attack, and is a gift to London from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

CONTEMPLATIVE SPACE "What we love about much of Ando's work is that the air has stopped and there is complete silence," Tamura explained. "I would like to challenge Ando to create a room with three walls containing the silence she evokes, and a fourth wall of glass through which to see an event. Perhaps a performance of some sort or a sporting event."

The concept is similar to the large-scale installation entitled "Emptiness The Sky" (Shou Sugi Ban) that Ando created for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Within a structure of charred wood similar to material of the homes in Okayama, Ando painted on metal with urethane pigments to create a contemplative environment that expresses silence.

As an American artist, Ando tries to work from the inside out. "I try to present fullness," Ando explained. Her recent works endeavor to coax impermanence from metal, a durable solid material, and impart permanence to the fleeting spines of Bodhi tree leaves and clouds. Late last year, Ando had a large show at both the Hong Kong and Singapore outposts of Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Her works have been selling to collectors in Europe and interest has now expanded to Asia. The paintings shown were of aluminum brushed with urethane and pigments evoking what Art Forum Magazine called "dawn and evening, floating clouds and fog, rising tides and frozen lakes."

"My Japanese audience reacts slightly differently to the work than in other Asian countries because there is already a cultural context," Ando said. "I feel that I'm speaking of things that are already in the culture. In other Asian countries the culture and values are different." She credits Sundaram Tagore Gallery, which represents her in both Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as in the U.S., with helping to contextualize her work for Asian audiences. Ando considers the various galleries that represent her around the world to be her partners. They help to create demand for her work and keep prices consistent between countries.

SUNSHINE THROUGH LEAVES In November 2016 Ando showed new works in Los Angeles at Lora Schlesinger Gallery. The 16 works included metal paintings. Among the newer works entitled "Kumo," or "clouds," were clouds wafting in tufts across six reflective panels created in white matte ink on stainless Alucore, an aluminum composite. "I'm just so thrilled that LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) acquired one of these," she said. Other works included 24 mandalas constructed from Bodhi leaf skeletons, hand-dyed to create an intriguing and elusive narrative. "Because of my Buddhist upbringing, I'm interested in Zen [a school of Mahayana Buddhism] and the exploration of ideas," she explained.

In July 2017, the Bodhi leaves will be part of a storewide presentation of Ando's work by Seibu Department Stores in Shibuya, Tokyo. There will be paintings in the gallery, and the store windows will be given over to an installation of Bodhi leaves worked with copper and gold leaf. "The Bodhi leaves are the perfect expression of the temporary nature of life. I love the Japanese word komorebi, which means light or sunshine filtering through the leaves of a tree. There is no English word for that. I hope that my work can express that elusive term," Ando said.

"All the elegance in my being comes from my mom," she noted. She also credits her mother and the family connection to Buddhism with helping her career to take off.

In the early 2000s, Ando was living in San Francisco, working on steel panels in mainly blacks and grays. Her mother called one day and suggested that she donate a piece to the art auction organized by a local Zen center. Ando happily gave one of her pieces without hesitation. The owner of an important San Francisco gallery called to say she had been outbid for the piece in the auction, but could not stop thinking about it. Did Ando want to have a show at Edith Caldwell Gallery? The gallery managed to sell every piece she gave them. Her success soon spread to Japan through a gallery in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and throughout Asia and Europe.

"I grew up surrounded by Nichiren Buddhism, which teaches that all people have Buddha nature," Ando said, referring to the belief that everyone has compassion and wisdom within them. "Hopefully that is what comes through in my work and it is something everyone can understand."

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